UPDATE 26 SEPTEMBER 2017: I am delighted to be able to link to the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative, which ‘aims to improve the mental health and wellbeing of those in the veterinary team, including students, veterinary nurses, veterinary surgeons and practice managers. MMI was launched in 2015 and is funded and run by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), the regulatory body for veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses in the UK.’
UPDATE 14 APRIL 2017: I just came across this article, which was reprinted in the November 2016 issue of Vet nuus-news: Why do so many veterinarians commit suicide? Today I received yet another eloquent comment on this blog, this time from John, an Australian veterinarian with 34 years in the profession. Scroll down this page to see what he and others have to say.
Elsewhere in the issue of Vet nuus-news mentioned above is this relevant advice: 10 strategies to save yourself from stress.
UPDATE OCTOBER 2014: My attention has been drawn to this piece about the suicide of two veterinarians. The comments below the article are interesting, and include some from the wife of the author of the guest post below, who did commit suicide.
UPDATE JUNE 2014: I have just been alerted to this video about the high rate of suicide among Australian vets.
My book Pet Hates, The Shocking Truth about Pets and Vets, was published in 2006. It reveals aspects of this highly stressful profession not widely known by the public. Although I gave up the job years ago, I continue to suffer nightmares related to my experiences, and I also continue to receive grateful emails from vets suffering from severe depression and stress, who identify with the book.
A few days ago I received a particularly moving and detailed account of the pressures on veterinarians from a US-based practitioner. I reproduce it below, with permission.
I am an angry, depressed, anxiety-prone and drunk veterinarian
Why I am a veterinarian
First, we must explore why I am a veterinarian. I have lied to myself for over 30 years that it’s because I like animals, hate people, and love the challenge of medicine and surgery. Truthfully, I became a veterinarian to make my father proud of me. He always said he wanted to be a vet when he grew up but could not afford the education. The first and only of his generation to be college-educated, he became a Civil Engineer. He was a hard man and, according to my mother, a loving father.
My memories, right or wrong, are of a drunken harsh disciplinarian who demanded 110% at all times and was emotionally and physically demanding and abusive. A-minuses were unacceptable, a 4.0 GPA out of 4.0 was not enough. The only time I recall him saying he was “proud of me” was after my mother’s prompting the day I graduated from veterinary school. I remember it clearly as I had been up all night the night before caring for a surgery horse (by the way, I HATE horses) since it was my case as my fellow students partied the night away.
I tried to garner his pride by playing rugby for the University of M_while in vet school (my brother played football for M_ and Dad was very proud of him). I was nominated to the college select side (all-state, all-star team) 4 out of 5 seasons but was told I was not doing my job during the games by my father, who did not understand the game to begin with.
His passions, similar to mine, were hunting, fishing and trapping. He reluctantly gave me hints until I equaled him, then he would become competitive and condescending as I surpassed his skills. No positive reinforcements or “atta boys” were ever given. I have a collection of trophies in my house that after his stroke he would sit look at and grin. This I had to take as a compliment as I was still desperate by that time for his approval.
In his defense he was nothing but loving, nurturing, caring and spoiling to my children, his only grandchildren. He and my mother even accepted Christina, my stepdaughter, as one of mine and theirs, to the point that she is the oldest granddaughter for the family traditional hand-me-downs.
He is gone now and I will never know if I pleased him or not. Mother says I did, but she will always cover his ass till the day she dies, such is the way of their love.
Why not be a real doctor?
Secondly, let us explore this profession of veterinary medicine. Even before school I was always asked: “Why not be ‘a real doctor’? Isn’t veterinary medicine a two-year tech school degree? Don’t vets just treat everything the same way? After all, they are just animals.”
What do you mean, it’s extra to come in the night?
Since graduation the same questions arise, along with the following:
- “How much is this going to cost, because otherwise we can just put him/her to sleep?”
- “What do you mean, it’s extra to come in the middle of the night? You live there anyway, don’t you?”
- “My animal is sick/injured but I don’t have any money. What do I do? You won’t treat it for free but you love animals don’t you?”
- “What do you mean, I have to give her pills? She bites!”
No pride or satisfaction
I have, in 20-plus years:
- sewn up ventricles in hearts,
- patched or removed lung lobes, spleens, livers, kidneys and masses,
- resected and anastamosed large and small bowel,
- repaired fractured bones and ruptured ligaments,
- repaired massive traumas from vehicles, bears, wolves and gunshot, and rehabilitated wildlife.
I’ve done chiropractic and acupuncture work and created litters that were not supposed to happen. I’ve managed liver and kidney failures, diabetes mellitus, diabetes insipidus, Cushing’s disease, tick-borne diseases, auto-immune diseases, dermatology patients, oncology patients, cardiology patients and spinal strokes, and had paralyzed patients walk, just to mention a few more! Ninety-eight percent of this has happened without the support of a referral or a specialist to help out. No personal pride or satisfaction were gained here by me, because this is just my job and results are expected.
Medical doctors “would piss themselves”
My M.D. friends, in the words of Dr C_, DVM, MS, and DACVT, “would piss themselves after one day in our jobs”. Finances are never a concern; they have one special area and ONLY one species to worry about. There is always someone smarter than them to refer to and euthanasia is never an option. In my world, I get one chance, usually less than $300, no option to refer and if it will cost too much I get to kill the patient rather than pursue a diagnosis. After 20-plus years at this, there have been several times where I delivered the patient at C-section, resuscitated it, and 10 or so years later killed it humanely (a.k.a. euthanased or euthanised), because the owners did not have the finances to pursue diagnosis or treatment further.
You just stole my kids’ Christmas!
Just in the last few months, I have been told:
- “You guys are real fucking nice!” over a price quote at 10:30 p.m.
- “I couldn’t pay for the last meds because I needed glasses, could you just send some more? The dog really needs them.”
- “I’ll have to pay you later, Doc. I’m taking the family to the Dells for a few days and don’t have the money for you.”
- “I don’t think I can keep the cat with open wounds in the house to medicate him. Isn’t there anything else we can do so he can stay outside?”
- “Wow, Doc, you just stole my kids’ Christmas!”
- “Your dog has a ruptured spleen I can most likely fix it” “No, Doc, just put her to sleep.”
- “You and your wife have no compassion. You should be happy to put our dog out of its misery at 3 a.m. After all, we have been watching her suffer for days and just can’t take it any more.”
- “We just assumed any vet could do those procedures for us.”
The guilt card
This list can go on and on, as they always play the guilt card, and it deepens my lack of self-respect and my need to escape, and furthers my depression.
No one knows or cares about my academic past or achievements, so why should I? (It certainly didn’t make my father say he was proud.) It depresses me daily to know how hard I worked to achieve what I have, and no one cares or understands, so why should I be allowed to be proud of them?
- Graduated with honors with my undergrad degree (3.98/4.00 GPA)
- Accepted to vet school, the most demanding academic program to get into and through
- Graduated vet school with honors (3.86/4.00 GPA)
- Passed State and National Boards at the 98th percentile
- Elected to Phi Zeta Veterinary Honor Society
- Caleb Dorr Award for academic excellence several times
- Published in refereed journals in organometallic synthesis and glucose metabolism
- CRC Freshman Chemistry Award for highest grade in chemistry for the year (a 98% average when the class average was 53%)
- Finished in the 95th percentile on a national organic chemistry exam
- 90th percentile on the GRE as a fall quarter sophomore (usually taken as a senior)
- One of the first 100 DVM DCs to be certified in Animal Chiropractic in the world
- One of the first private slum practitioners to be certified in stem cell therapy (“Slum” is a derogatory term I use out of anger. We work in a perpetually economically depressed area where most clients can’t or won’t spend money on the advanced techniques that I get certified in.)
- One of several hundred worldwide certified in canine reproduction
- One of 18 DVMs in my state certified in fish health
Again, this list can continue.
Published, won competitions… but no pride
I have been published in the areas of animal diseases and trapping, and have had several recipes published. I’ve won cooking contests; fishing tournaments and hunting competitions. I have no pride in any of these achievements.
The animals whose trust I betrayed weigh heaviest on my heart
Then there are the animals I couldn’t help or even whose trust I betrayed. These weigh the heaviest on my heart, and I have never been able to forgive myself for my failures and/or betrayals:
First was Molly, my father’s dog when I was a child. I was in charge of getting her to the kennel from the house but was too lazy to put a leash on her. She bolted on me and was hit and killed by a car a few miles from our home. Dad said it wasn’t my fault but there was never any sincerity in his voice or affection towards me since the day we found her dead. (Of course, my dog Missy was on a leash that day as she was in heat.)
Missy was the second dog I failed. She had metatstatic mammary cancer that went to her brain when I was a senior in vet school. Nothing I could do would save her, so I didn’t even try. What a betrayal of a dog that trusted me!
The worst betrayal of my life
W_was next and the worst betrayal of my life. Let me insert some information on him and what he meant to me.
W_ was a gift for me for graduating from veterinary school. Named after a favorite instructor and rugby team captain from vet school, he was my one and constant companion at that time, riding on all farm calls, all fishing trips and of course all hunting trips. By one year of age we had killed 186 birds over him and trained almost daily. He fetched when he wanted to, worked upland and water fowl. His nickname by the locals was “Hoover”, because he vacuumed up all of the birds in the field. In ten years NO ONE ever killed a bird behind him, ever. In his last three years of grouse-hunting here in the north woods we kept a log. We averaged killing one out of eight birds flushed and one out of three shot at, and in three years we killed 476 ruffed grouse over him, including a limit with my wife the morning before my son T_ was born. Doing the math, that dog and Doc worked over 3,800 birds in three years!
I killed him
I betrayed him and his trust in me by killing him in our own house. He sat right there looking me in the eye as I gave him the lethal injection. He died emotionlessly in my arms, never fighting it or questioning his trust in me. His transgression was biting my son, and to this day I do not know whose fault it was as I did not see it happen. My memory says my wife said the dog leaves the house or her and the kids do. In the moment I felt as though I had only one choice. In retrospect, I had other options. I have seen his ghost hunting with me on some of his favorite trails and now EVERY time I euthanise a dog I have to look W_ in the eye as I do it. Hell, I KILLED my best friend! Ted Nugent’s Fred Bear song reminds me of W_, and I cry helplessly every time I hear it. Fester, my current buddy, was named in W_’s memory by my wife….His pedigree name is Drjac’s Fred Bear O’Dee. in the hope that W_ will walk the trails again with me, despite what I did to him.
Next was Morticia, my wife’s finished field bitch. She had an infraspinatus contracture that needed surgical correction. I offered my wife the option to have the vet school do it or me, and she mistakenly chose me. Several days post op, after a long battle and a trip to the vet school where they said we don’t know what is wrong but she is going to die, they were correct. I believe she had an anaerobic bacterial infection that was either triggered by surgery or post op antibiotics, or was coincidental. The world will never know, but I will always blame myself and harbor the sight of my wife sleeping with her dead dog overnight in the basement, and there was fuck all I could do to change a thing.
The last example I will use is Sassy. Sassy was a bear hound that should never have made it out of the woods: multiple fractured ribs, punctured, collapsed and lacerated lung lobes, lacerated kidney, lacerated liver, ruptured spleen, diaphragmatic hernia, and perforated bowel. No whole blood to give for transfusions as it was three days away and the cost was prohibitive. My trauma team (ME and my wife) worked on her for three weeks, day and night, and finally lost.
Please save her!
She was owned by a doe-eyed 12-year-old girl, who said, “Please save her!” So we tried. The first week she was with us the only way we could get her to eat or interact was to have my 7-year-old doe-eyed daughter crawl in the cage with Sassy several times a day and hand feed her. By the second week I had two little girls begging me to save this dog. The end of the third week she threw a pulmonary embolism and died. I can only believe if I had done a better job, or had better skills and equipment, I could have saved that dog for those little girls.
Again the list could go on and on, after 20-plus years.
I drink to stop the spin and out-of-control guilt and pain
I take no pride or pleasure from my wins and only guilt and blame from my losses. This is at least one pattern I need help to break, please. I drink to stop the spin and out-of-control guilt and pain, only to have it return in the morning.